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11.26.2012

Brazil’s Pantanal is one of earth’s most biologically rich areas and truly spectacular photography destination.  Last month I took a scouting trip to the Pantanal for wildlife with with special emphasis on the jaguar. It was my first trip here and I have to say the photographic opportunities in the Pantanal were even better than I expected. Jaguar was the main target of the trip and I would have been happy just to see a single one but as it turns out we had the chance to photograph them each day and every day I was there. This is one of the best locations if not the best location on earth to photograph jaguar.

Come along as Sigma Pro Robert O’Toole explores the possibilities of the Pantanal with Sigma lenses including the 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 10x telephoto zoom lens.

Jaguar, Mato Grosso Sur Brazil. D800E, Sigma 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM, handheld, 1/1250 s @ f8, Auto-ISO at 1250, Dynamic-area AF, 51 point 3D. | Image copyright 2012 Robert OToole Photography

The jaguar is a large cat in the panthera genus, the third largest of all the big cats, only smaller than the tiger and male lion. The males are about the same weight  as a female tiger or lion but with about twice the strength of a male lion. The bite of the jaguar is the strongest of all mammals except for the spotted hyena. These cats are so strong I have been told they can easily kill and drag off a horse or 800 pound bull by itself.

Jaguar launching to attack a caiman in Mato Grosso Sur Brazil. D800E, Sigma 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM, handheld, 1/1250 s @ f8, Auto-ISO at 1250, Dynamic-area AF, 51 point 3D. | Image copyright 2012 Robert OToole Photography

My group was lucky to see a jaguar jump off a river bank to attack a caiman (a crocodilian reptile found in much of Central and South America) as long as itself, then proceed to kill and  jump up a 7 foot river bank carrying the reptile in its jaws! The jaguar uses a killing method unique amongst cats in that it pierces directly through the skull between the ears of prey, piercing the brain. I am told it can easily crush a large turtle’s shell with its jaws.

Jaguar relaxing on a river bank in Mato Grosso Sur Brazil. D800E, Sigma 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM, handheld, 1/125 s @ f8, Auto-ISO at 1400, Exp +1, Dynamic-area AF, 51 point 3D. | Image copyright 2012 Robert OToole Photography

Thankfully jaguar prefer to live and hunt near water so photography near rivers in the Pantanal is very productive. They seem to enjoy the cooler temperatures especially on river banks on hot afternoons. The cool water in the rivers really helps keep the temperatures comfortable for photographers also.

Pantaneros at work driving cattle. Mato Grosso, Brazil. D800E, Sigma 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM @380mm, handheld, 1/500 s @ f8, Auto-ISO at 720, Exp +1, Dynamic-area AF, 51 point 3D. | Image copyright 2012 Robert OToole Photography

The Pantanal primarily is a cattle ranching area and the Pantaneros or Brazilian cowboys and ranch owners are an important part of the survival of the jaguar. Future jaguar conservation efforts depend on educating ranch owners and promoting ecotourism. Thankfully this has seemed to be working in the areas we visited.

Southern crested caracara juvenile. D800E, Sigma 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM, handheld, 1/800 s @ f8, Auto-ISO at 500, Exp +1, Dynamic-area AF, 51 point 3D. | Image copyright 2012 Robert OToole Photography

These raptors were some of the most common on the trip and seem to always eating something different, even termites. Thanks to the close focus ability and reach of the 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 portraits like this were easy.

Giant water bug. D800E, Sigma 24-70 f2.8 APO DG OS HSM, handheld, 1/60 s @ f5.6, Auto-ISO at 400, Exp +1, Dynamic-area AF, 51 point 3D. | Image copyright 2012 Robert OToole Photography

These giant water bugs were common when it rained and were very active on the ground. I was told by my Brazilian guide these have one of the worst bites of anything in Brazil. The poison causes permanent muscle damage and searing pain for days! I can tell you that they do not like to be picked up, believe me! In addition to their bite they have a chemical defense that they shoot out of their rear end. Thankfully I already knew about it and was able to avoid any contact.

Sand wasp at nest entrance, Pantanal, brazil. Nikon D800E, Sigma 180mm f/3.5 Macro lens, single Nikon SB-R200 flash with diffuser @ 1:8 power, hand-held, Manual mode 1/250th s, f18, ISO 100. | Image copyright 2012 Robert OToole Photography

These sand wasps with bright green eyes were very easy to get close to and photograph without any agression at all. My favorite thing about these wasps other than the bright green eyes were the fact that they feed on horse flies which seem to always seem to bother you at the worst times when you are out photographing. Here one is entering its burrow, they lay an egg in the nest and feed they larva on a daily basis with freshly caught insects, usually horse flies.

Giant otter, Pantanal Brazil. D800E, Sigma 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM, handheld, 1/500 s @ f8, Auto-ISO at 2500, Exp +1.3, Dynamic-area AF, 51 point 3D. | Image copyright 2012 Robert OToole Photography

Families of giant otter, usually six to eight, are commonly found on rivers in the Pantanal searching for prey or relaxing on logs in the river. Watching them feed was amazing and a dream come true for me.  These otter can reach over six feet in total body length when fully grown. The giant otters are very  noisy with a complex repertoire of vocalizations, mostly chirps, hums coos and whistles that can be heard from quite a distance away. It was very nice to see so many giant otter in the Pantanal. Due to hunting and habitat loss they are doing to well in the rest of South America.

The 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 lens was perfect for this kind of situation. The otter would swim by so close there is no way a 500mm prime lens would ever be able to focus this close.

Black-collared Hawk, Pantanal Brazil. D800E, Sigma 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM, handheld, 1/1000 s @ f8, Auto-ISO at 640, Exp +.7, Dynamic-area AF, 51 point 3D. | Image copyright 2012 Robert OToole Photography

The black-collared hawk is found all over the Pantanal and is very habituated to human contact in some areas. Sometimes you can find them feeding on fresh water crabs and you can find empty shells under perches.

Some of my experiences on my scouting trip were unforgettable, you really have to see and photograph the wildlife there in person. I was so impressed on my first trip to the Pantanal I plan on returning there again in 2013. I hope this small sample of images will inspire you to take a trip there to see and photograph in the Pantanal in person. Email me or leave a comment below if you have any questions or would like some advice, or for more information on a future tours there.

All of the images in this post were made outdoors in the wild of 100% free and non captive or kept animals.

Robert O’Toole is a Sigma Pro and has been a professional photographer for more than 20 years. As an accomplished instructor, Robert leads photography workshop tours across the US and internationally. For more info visit Robert’s web site at robertotoolephotography.com

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